NEW YORK (AP) — "Spasiba, Katya," David Hallberg calls out, thanking a colleague in what sounds like a pretty convincing Russian accent. We're on our way upstairs to his dressing room at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, where his name is emblazoned on the door — in Cyrillic letters.
Talk about worlds colliding. For the past three years, since he made headlines by becoming the first American — and first foreigner — to be named a principal dancer at the storied Bolshoi Ballet, Hallberg, a blond, elegant dancer from the American heartland, has lived what he calls two separate lives — his American life, in New York, and his Russian life, in Moscow.
But this week, the two converge, as the Bolshoi performs in New York for the first time in nearly a decade. The theater is just a few steps from the Metropolitan Opera House, where Hallberg recently finished his spring season with American Ballet Theatre (he splits his year between the companies). But in a more spiritual way, Hallberg says, those few steps feel like a leap back to Russia. Certainly, it's a full-circle moment.
"I have to say, it's throwing me for a loop a little bit," he says as he stretches out in his sparse dressing room, the floor strewn with a couple of crumpled ballet socks.
The Bolshoi engagement in New York, part of the annual Lincoln Center Festival, is a chance for Hallberg, who's dancing Prince Siegfried in "Swan Lake," to reconnect with relatives. About 30 of them are flying in from Indiana and Arizona, where most of his family lives (Hallberg was born in South Dakota, then raised chiefly in Phoenix), to attend a weekend matinee.
But it's also a chance to reflect on the past three years — years in which he's become known as sort of a ballet diplomat: a dancer who took the reverse journey to the one Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov took many years earlier, when they defected. ("Stephen, the Cold War is over," Hallberg quipped during an appearance with Stephen Colbert, who jestingly accused him of "giving away American ballet secrets.") In a 2011 interview with this reporter, Hallberg mused about whether he'd need to change his privacy settings on social media. Now, he's hired a personal publicist, travels the world making guest appearances and has been a subject of artsy fashion magazine shoots.
The Bolshoi, too, has gotten its share of attention — not for similarly happy reasons, but for the shocking acid attack on its artistic director, Sergei Filin, in January 2013 that led to the partial loss of his eyesight (and nearly 30 surgeries to date). Bolshoi dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko, now serving prison time, was found guilty of ordering the attack; the trial exposed bitter divisions within the Bolshoi.
Hallberg was in New York when it happened. "Of course it was alarming," he says. "Sergei was attacked. You ask yourself, 'Am I exempt from that?'" But he never felt targeted himself, despite his alliance with Filin. "I decided it was important to go back to Moscow. For him — and for me personally. I was adamant about fulfilling my vision of where I wanted to go as a dancer."
He's also adamant about his support for Filin, whose moves to break from Bolshoi tradition haven't pleased everyone in the company: "He's one of those people who can see ahead of the curve a bit, and our art form needs that."
Meanwhile, Hallberg says, he's feeling "more and more part of the fabric of the Bolshoi." Almost everyone has been welcoming, he says, down to the cleaners in the hallways. "They all want to say good morning, practice their English," he laughs.
As for his own Russian, it's been a slow process. In time, though, he's built a nice Moscow social life, he says — not so much with dancers as with designers, photographers, stylists and artists. He's developed an affinity for a city he once hated — and doesn't seem to mind the cold.
At work, he's found that he's immersed mainly in the classics, like "Swan Lake" and "Sleeping Beauty." While that can be satisfying, and is physically quite demanding, he says he needs to find time to stretch himself with contemporary choreographers. "I just have to stay aware, because it could turn into all 'Swan Lakes,' all around the world," he says.
He also wants to dance again with Natalia Osipova, a former Bolshoi and ABT star who's now with London's Royal Ballet. Ballet fans went nuts over their "Romeo and Juliet" for ABT, a pairing that brought out the best in both. But she left the Bolshoi just as he was arriving.
"Next year, we're going to have more chances," he promises. "I can't tell you details yet, but we're desperate to dance together."
But there's more that Hallberg is thinking about — he's looking ahead to the time when he can no longer dance, even though he knows that at age 32, it's too early for that.
"To be honest with you, I've been thinking about it since I was 21," he says, lowering his voice to an intense whisper. "I won't be able to do 'Swan Lake' forever."
Hallberg says he sees himself perhaps directing a company. But what he truly wants, he says, is to help expand the horizons of the dance world. "I want to have a role in thinking bigger than what has already been thought," he says.
He catches himself: "I know that sounds naive." But he adds: "You know, when I went to the Bolshoi, I thought, 'This could totally blow up in my face. I could be back in New York in six months.' But sometimes life says, 'Listen, this is what's going to happen. This is the ride that you're going to go on.'"